issue 41: March - April 2004
index of book reviews for all issues
|Note: TBR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice-versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by Amazon.com unless otherwise noted.|
Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins: No Exit Press, UK, 2004
Robbins also musters up a largish cast of characters,who at first might appear to be warped, one-dimensional stereotypes, but his cleverness - dare one say genius? - is to allow these oddballs to breathe and grow. And of course most of these people meet up or are connected by sheer coincidence. Example: a clown-obsessed sister of the drug-smuggler MIA just happens to get a job in a visiting circus where one of the performers turns out to be the lover of one of the other MIAs. Also in the audience are the interrogators of her brother. Yet, as Robbins points out, Carl Jung says there is no such thing as coincidence.
Just how a Japanese mythical character and American MIAs connect is another matter, and at first one might think the whole venture ridiculously convoluted. But again Robbins comes to the rescue with his outrageously funny humour in a book that can be read on a number of levels. As one might expect, the novel contains some of the most outlandish metaphors around. A quick random pick: "The night was so black not even Michael Jacksons cosmetic surgeon could have lightened its hue", and a character who " was about as useful as a pocket road map of Venezuela." And as for descriptions, well, at one point there are two and a half pages solely on the joy of Wonder Bread and mayonnaise sandwiches; and, thankfully shorter, quotable sections about sex, an area Robbins revels in: " her glossy black pubis parted like the curtain at a theater, gradually revealing a stage set - architectonic, kind of surrealistic, and as rosy as a classical dawn." And hows this for handling the inevitable: "For them not to have fucked then and there would have required such a reversal of the laws of nature as to cause Newton to spin in his coffin and NASA to discontinue the space program."
Robbins eighth novel in a long career is an odd mix, but I found it far more accessible and better crafted than the vast Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates. For those approaching Robbins for the first time, Villa Incognito is possibly a better introduction than the classics such as Another Roadside Attraction or Even Cowgirls Get the Blues - for the simple reason that it contains all the Robbins hallmarks, but set in contemporary times.
The Furies by Fernanda Eberstadt: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
Gwen Lewis is a single thiry-one-year-old who has a high-power job working for a private institution that desires to democratize Russia in the mid-nineties. A bright and wealthy Manhattanite, she owns her condo on the Upper West Side, but often has to travel to Russia, a country about which she has much of interest to say. On one trip, she meets a scruffy puppeteer (Gideon Wolkowitz, also from New York), who is currently traveling through Russia with his troupe. Sparks fly between the two, but Gwen is cautious. Once back in New York, however, she cant help herself and gives him a friendly call. They meet, and a passionate love affair develops. Naturally, their circles are worlds apart: there is Gwen with her rich, sophisticated uptown friends; and Gideon, who lives in a squat on the Lower East Side with a single mother (one of his troupe) and a young boy, Ethan.
The sexual attraction between the two is strong; they can hardly bear to be away from each other. But then, quite unexpectedly, Gwen becomes pregnant. She doesnt want a child because her career is more important to her, but she is ambivalent, so it is with mixed emotions that she finally decides to have the baby. Also around this time, she has become uncomfortable with Gideon living where he does. In a foolish moment, she asks him to move in with her. Gideon thinks she and he would be happier continuing with their current living situation; plus, he hates to leave Ethan and his dear friend and workmate, Ethans mother. But Gwen is persuasive, and marriage follows shortly thereafter. In no time then, the relationship begins to disintegrate. Even though we know the marriage is doomed, it is mesmerizing to read how quickly and brutally it falls apart. After the baby is born, Gwen soon returns to work (shell later take her baby daughter with her on a business trip to Russia). She feels Gideon doesnt do enough to help the situation and becomes resentful. Soon she refuses to have sex. Gideon suffers and endures, but his patience will eventually be tested.
Both Gwen and Gideon have had impoverished childhoods: Gwens parents are divorced and she has never had any intimacy with either parent, both of whom have remarried; Gideons mother died while he was young and he never knew his father. This common background helps form the bond between the two, but other factors predictably pull them apart.
Gideon is an idealist of the old school, a leftie ("he genuinely believes the shit [he reads] in The Nation"), who advocates communal upbringing. Gwen insists on expensive nannies and, later, on private schools. Gideon is also part Jewish (though not a practicing one) and although Gwen has some Jewish heritage in her family as well, she insists the child not be brought up with Jewish customs. The battle between the two is multi-faceted: it is a clash of class, gender, religion, politics, and ideology. The author presents both sides intelligently - neither is wholly innocent or guilty, although our hearts are with Gideon, who . . .
The bare bones of the plot may sound simplistic, but the narrative is powerful and the prose exquisite. Descriptions of New Yorks two worlds - the moneyed Upper West Side yuppies, with their babies and nannies and cell phones in Central Park versus the Lower East Side communal puppet troupe with its team of volunteers fighting City Hall to maintain their squat, which also functions as their theater - are vividly portrayed. Essentially, The Furies is a well articulated novel of opposing political ideals - exactly what America and much of the world is faced with today. But the politics and opposing philosophies are couched convincingly in the characters and we do not hear the author speaking through them. Wholly engaging, intelligent, and filled with thoughtful reflection. J.A.
Dead I May Well Be by Adrian McKinty: Serpents Tail, 2004
Born and raised in Ireland during the Troubles, Michael Forsythe was already pretty bored by guns at age 14. His late teens see a brief stint in the British army lead to prison and dishonorable discharge and from there to being an illegal immigrant in New York, paying off his passage by working as a cheap thug for mobster Darkey White. Michael is smarter than the others and his youthful eagerness, fearlessness and a vicious streak seemingly point to a meteoric rise up the ranks to full-blown hood-from-hell. But Michael is also fated with bad luck, a lippy mouth and a dick best left in his pants when it comes to the bosss mistress. Along with the reader, Michael senses the inevitable downfall to come, but even his paranoia lets him down.
The tale breaks down into three parts. The first concerns the rise of Michael and the background of the New York gang. It is generous in its telling, slow, very funny and quite violent. It is told in hindsight so we are aware of what will happen, but not too sure about the how and when; we simply know that revenge is a keyword. A shift of scene to Mexico also heralds a change in narrative delivery. Set up in a dodgy drug deal, Michael and his friends suffer the barbarities of a Mexican prison. The cheeky humor of before is lost in the squalor, misery and daily tedium. With nothing to do but survive Michael takes to staring at the stains and cracks on the walls and ceiling of his cell, and from them inventing countries with histories, borders, rivers and invading armies - a sort of Civilization or Empire without a PC. The final part is Michael returning to New York. Here the humor gently returns "The can was Budweiser, but it was so cold you couldnt taste it, so it was ok." Now less reckless, but far more cunning and a lot more dangerous, Michael bides his time, mainly to recover from his prison injuries, but also because he has time to burn before he exacts his revenge.
A classic revenge story then? Yes, but as Irish comedian Frank Carson would say: Its the way you tellem. Michael is a thug, a violent brute, so for the reader to like him, to root for him, McKinty has to - and does - paint his narrator as a character who works on many fronts, and by doing so creates not only an excellent page-turner but one that is literarily sound. The shifts from street slang and wicked Irish humor to gruesome seriousness or matter-of-fact coldness are seamless; and the imagery - such as from prison wall battles to a memory of a childhood haircut blends in well along the way. If all this wasnt enough there is a neat final twist at the end that nicely concludes a more than satisfying book from a new writer. MGS
Boy A by Jonathan Trigell: Serpents Tail, 2004
For his first novel Trigell has picked a rather thorny subject and maybe also a wee fight with the English gutter press.
Jack chooses his own name from The Big Book of Boys Names and his Uncle Terry is helping him to settle into a new life after Jack has done a few stints for taking and driving away. For Jack Burridge it is make or break time; he is naïve, virginal and seems backward for his 24 years. He is pale and one might say he looked innocent, but Jack is an institutionalized man, now a product of a system run by a society that howled for revenge 17 years before when Jack and another boy committed a heinous crime that had nothing to do with vehicles. Word of his release from prison has again sent the armchair lynch mobs, fuelled by the likes of The Sun, baying for blood. The boy that was Jack is dead, referred to as Boy A; the other child-killer, Boy B, really is dead. Uncle Terry is in fact a corrections/probation officer, but his link to Jack is more than hidden panic buttons. The two have bonded to an almost father/son level. Jack must now try and integrate with a society that would shun or even kill him should his new identity be revealed. In many ways it is an uphill struggle: booze, drugs, sex and petty crime are all diversions and dangers that could trip him up. Then there are those who want to find what Boy A has become for financial gain, egged on by an unforgiving press waving money and hoping to sell their poisonous bias. Will Jack make it?
The reader of course gets an all-round picture. Jack is obviously no longer Boy A, and though no one could condone his past crimes, one has to offer him sympathy, give him the benefit of the doubt and allow him to live as the person he has now grown up to be. Trigell tries to keep a balance throughout; he could have been more scathing about the out-of-date prison system, as the sympathetic Terry would more than compensate, but his target is more focused on the way the press can influence public opinion. Here there is no balance; The Sun, with its checkbook journalism, is the enemy, the baddie of the book, full stop; yet Trigell doesnt hit us over the head with it in some embarrassing rant, but rather lets the blinkered evil ooze into the unfolding tale.
A brave, well plotted and nicely crafted story, dealing with issues that on reflection shouldnt worry a public quite used to reformed adult murderers returning to society . I bet thesoaraway Sun wont have it as their book of the month. MGS
The Language of Sharks by Pat MacEnulty: Serpents Tail, 2004
This collection of short stories by Pat MacEnulty shows her skill in capturing the painful, pivotal moments in the lives of her small-town female protagonists. Beginning with young girl narrators - the introductory short-short fiction piece is told by a female who speaks of her moment of conception - the book moves towards those whove hit forty and dead-ended in the suburbs; while in between it is typical to find a young girl whose parents are divorced or separated - perhaps one of whom is terminally ill or dead - who follows an often self-destructive path as she struggles to cope and survive. MacEnultys prose is sure and true, and of the 19 stories there isnt a dud in the lot.
In "Floating on the Darkness" Lillian looks back on her junior and senior years in high school. Her stepfather has just returned from detox, "a wasted vision of cirrhosis"; she recounts her teen-age loves, her closeness to and estrangement from her mother, and the ominous direction that her life will take: "Frankie Jacks and I would discover heroin and needles, and nothing that we had loved before would matter to us for a long time."
Indeed, a bit further along in "Singing in the Free World," our narrator - whose mother has died of congenital heart failure and whose father has married a "rattlesnake disguised as a woman" - is in prison on her charges, singing soprano in the prison choir; while "Purple Haze" dips back to 1970 to tell the story of a fourteen-year-old girl - stepdad an alcoholic; mother dying of cancer - who runs away from home, hitchhikes around, ends up at a rock concert where Hendrix is playing, drops acid and loses her virginity before returning home.
"The Bargain" is one of the slight detours from the general pattern. Here we find a young woman in a wheelchair thinking back to her ninth birthday when she got "June Ellen" as a present. June Ellen was the ugly, neglected kid next door, always covered in dirt, whose mother was offered - and accepted - the family dog in exchange for her daughter. The birthday girl is furious, not understanding her mothers desire to rescue the poor girl, but future events take a strange turn and June Ellen becomes indispensable.
"The End" is a lament by a nearly forty-year-old woman (an ex-heroin addict) in the suburbs, who says of her husband: "Fifteen minutes after we met, Stanley and I ran out of things to talk about. This has been one of the strengths of our marriage." But its not so hot, and modern life is worse: "There are so many things I hate about living in the contemporary world that I dont know where to begin." It may be bitching, but a lot of it sounds awfully familiar - obnoxious music in a coffee shop; soap operas blaring in the doctors reception room. And then the indignity of turning forty and disappearing before the male sex: "Actually, thats not such a bad thing. What is bad is that not only do they not look, they also do not see. This can be annoying when you are expecting the person selling you a bagel to at least make eye contact."
The final story, "Suburban Hunger," gives us another not-so-happily-married woman in the suburbs (husband Stan) with a young daughter. She feels estranged from her neighbors ("I mean, how long can you talk about your haircut or your new window treatments?) Life used to be different - movies, plays, poetry readings. (Shed gone to see Hendrix at age fourteen!) When she hears a woman in a band sing "All Along the Watchtower" at a baseball game, she is moved. The woman is her age, muscular, has a big dragon tattoo on her ankle, hair pulled back in a tight braid; our narrator knows they are from the "same tribe."
These women, young and old, may not always have made the right choices in life; they may have used drugs and men to help them get through - and some get through better than others - but I felt a compassion and kinship with many of them. Who would you rather get to know, a complacent suburbanite or a woman with experience, with a past, who isnt afraid to speak of it - sometimes humorously, sometimes heartbreakingly, but always honestly? Pat MacEnulty splendidly portrays the path of the females who fall into the latter tribe. J.A.
2003The Barcelona Review
issue 41: March - April 2004